Fighting for truth
Japanese octogenarian battles to spread knowledge of Unit 731
“As long as I’m still alive and able to talk, I won’t stop telling the truth and advocating for peace,” said Japanese Yamabe Yukiko. The 89-year-old is one of the few Japanese who are now sharing the history of Japan’s notorious past in China. Yukiko is attempting to spread knowledge about Unit 731 – a part of history denied by the Japanese government. Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army was notorious for its atrocious and lethal chemical experimentation on Chinese and Russian people. It’s a subject rarely touched on in Japan and authorities there are eager to cover up this part of the country’s past. Sitting in a wheelchair, Yukiko recently came to Changchun, Northeast China’s Jilin Province to share stories of Unit 731 together with other Japanese activists. Because of her advanced age, she is worried this could be the last time she comes to China to share this aspect of history. Before coming to Changchun, she received several abusive calls from Japanese right-wing members, but this didn’t discourage her.
“Japanese people need to fight together with Chinese people (to reveal the truth), otherwise we can’t sleep in peace,” she said.
But so far, the Japanese government has not apologized or acknowledged their terrible deeds. “This is a great blow to us,” she said.
Link to China
Yukiko was born in Japan in 1928. She came to China with her mother in 1941 to join her father, who then worked in an iron company in Liaoning Province.
After Japan was defeated in World War II in 1945, the then 16-year-old joined the Northeast Democratic Allied Army, a former branch of the Communist Party of China (CPC)-led People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to fight the Kuomintang army.
Yukiko said that a pot was the reason she joined the PLA rather than the Kuomintang army. Both Kuomintang troops and the PLA visited Yukiko’s house and took a pot. When Kuomintang soldiers left, they smashed the pot, but Communist Party soldiers returned the pot as promised and gave the family food to express their gratitude.
“My father then told me I should join an army like this,” she said. She then joined the Northeast Democratic Allied Army as a nurse and fought side by side with her Chinese counterparts in Guangzhou, South China’s Guangdong Province.
Yukiko returned to Japan in 1953 after serving eight years in the Chinese army. In the early 1980s, she read a story about Unit 731 in People’s Daily when she visited Changchun.
“I was then in Changchun, and I read the serialized articles (about Unit 731) every day at the post office. Are the Japanese so terrible? Is this real? These questions kept haunting my mind in those days,” she said.
To seek the truth, she first went to see the site of Unit 731 in Harbin. Unable to afford to stay in hotels, she went to Heilongjiang University, where she studied Chinese and conducted research on Unit 731.
Yukiko initially had doubts about this history, but they gradually disappeared after she saw Chinese laborers who were forced to work for 731.
She then returned to Japan to talk with soldiers from Unit 731 to collect evidence, but most of them kept quiet because they were ordered not to talk. Yukiko later set up an association to raise awareness of the history of Unit 731 among Japanese people.
In 1993, Yukiko hosted an exhibition on Unit 731 in Japan. She showcased materials that told the history of the unit, what they did in China and how they killed people in their laboratories. She has organized dozens of similar exhibitions in Japan.
The exhibitions have attracted many people, but right-wing elements always came to thwart her efforts.
When the Chinese guest Yukiko invited was giving a speech in the exhibition hall, right-wing extremists sent people to yell outside that Chinese people were here to insult Japan. Their voices were so loud that the audience inside could barely hear the speech.
Sometimes, there were even direct confrontations, she said.
Spreading the word
Yukiko said that it’s difficult to find information related to Unit 731 in Japanese textbooks, as only a small number of teachers are willing to teach this forgotten history to students. As a result, only a small number of Japanese youth know about it.
Alarmed by this widespread ignorance, Yukiko now devotes all her energy to telling Japanese people about this history. “I don’t care what happens to me. I am in my 80s and don’t need to worry about finding a job,” she said.
To get enough funding, she sold her house and used the money to help preserve the site of Unit 731 and record the testimonies of its victims.
Due to the efforts made by Yukiko and others, some changes are taking place. Recently, a documentary shown on TV by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, triggered heated discussions and prompted people to reflect on the country’s military history.
Titled “The Truth of Harbin Unit 731,” it revealed the crimes committed at the unit, including biological and chemical warfare research. The documentary interviewed people involved in Unit 731 who broke their silence in Japanese national media.
In Yukiko’s eyes, Unit 731 is a national crime to which more attention needs to be paid.” The most important thing is that the Japanese government should admit their fault and apologize to the victims,” she said.
Gas masks and other equipment used at Unit 731 are exhibited in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. In the box: Yamabe Yukiko